On this Teachers Day, it is so interesting to look at how the idea of teaching has evolved in the world of tattoos. From the not so distant times when masters chose and trained a handful of apprentices over decades to teachers having classes full of students now, tattoo learning has become tattoo training. Apprentices have turned into students, and masters have become teachers. But in this transition, are we losing tattooing’s core values that used to make it so special?
A couple of years back, I had opportunity of interviewing one of the living legends of global tattooing, Orge Kalodimas. During the interview, I remember how the Greek geometric master stressed on the importance of his relationship with his master, Sake of Sake Tattoo Crew. Orge started his tattooing career as an apprentice under Sake. And now, even after 20 years, he still calls himself an apprentice of Sake. He still opens the shop, sweeps the floors, and lives the apprentice life even though he’s one of the most sought after tattoo artists in the whole world.
Tattooing, from traditional to modern times, has always been defined by this relationship a master shares with his or her apprentice. It’s an intensive art form that requires years of extensive effort and learning. A large period of your life that you solely dedicate to unlearning everything you knew, and consuming everything your master pours down your throat. I remember watching this interview of master Horiyoshi III on Vice, where he says that for the first few years of his apprenticeship under his master, all he got for a yes or no or anything from his master was just a ‘hm’.
In many ways, this absolute zen form of master-apprentice relationship of passing knowledge and learning has held together the crux of tattooing. Partly secretive, this process ensured for generations that only the ones tough enough to survive the roughage of a hardcore apprenticeship could go on to establish themselves as tattoo artists. And you ask any tattoo artist going around (who have come out of this system), they will tell you why it is important for anybody truly interested in the practice of this art form to go through an apprenticeship, to choose a master and dedicate their energy to gather the experience that only comes with doing time.
Now, the scene has changed. Tattooing today is where probably photography was 5 years back. Everybody wanted to be a photographer because on paper, it just kept becoming easier and easier. Today, it won’t be far-fetched to say that general photography is coming to a dead end. With mobile phones in everybody’s hands, every shot is apparently a work of art. You no more need to learn photography to become a photographer. All you need is just the tools. And how far fetched would it be to say that tattooing is at a very similar place now, in terms of the idea that is floating around; ‘ANYBODY CAN TATTOO’.
It’s no more a difficult, extensive apprenticeship that you would have to go through in order to become a tattoo artist. Tattooing is such a huge industry now that you have schools, academies, institutions claiming to teach tattooing in less than a year. No more do apprentices (sorry students) have to tattoo on orange peels or pig skins to practice. There are practice skin pads. No more are tattoo students learning how to break down and assemble their machines. They are starting off with compact pen-like tattoo machines, practicing on pads, get a course structure, and in a year or half, getting certificates from their masters (sorry teachers) that is the stamp of their tattooing know-how. It’s just like any other damn job.
Teachers are no more masters. Indian tattooing flourished since early 21st century because of how selectively, yet extensively Dr. JA Kohiyar (the father of modern Indian tattooing) passed on his knowledge of the craft to individuals like Anil Gupta and Sameer Patange. That school of thought carried on from there. Sameer went on to define Indian tattooing in many ways, but the most important of all his achievements is how his handful of apprentices have gone on to become some of the biggest names of Indian tattooing, alongside him. Eric Jason Dsouza, Deep Kundu, Zaheer Chhatriwala, Kevin Andrade, Duncan Viegas… the list can go on. These are all artists who learnt it the hard way, because that’s how they got the life culture from their master.
As someone seriously interested and invested in tattoos, I would never want to get tattooed by anyone who follows a template of any kind, because tattooing is not just a profession, it’s a life culture, right? It’s a way of life. Tattoos are not just decorative ornaments I wear, they are deep representations of my expression as an individual. And it matters who tattoos me. Because 50% of it all is the artwork that you and your artist create in unison, the remaining half is the experience I have while getting the tattoo, and the values of tattooing I invoke from my artist.
But are today’s ‘tattoo students’ getting enough of the life culture? In their tattoo learning courses, are their classes that tackle the headspace associated with tattooing? Every season now, tattoo teachers will have batches completing their tattoo courses, getting certificates with their names on them, but how many of them will truly make the cut?
Times have changed, and everyone should definitely adapt to these changing tides. But on this Teachers Day, it seems like an ever-pertinent question: how many teachers want to be masters? And how many want to cash in?